By Steve Strunsky
The impact of the government shutdown hit home over the weekend for thousands of airport screeners who were paid for five or six days instead of the normal 10.
"Your landlord or your mortgage company is not going to wait for your paycheck to come late. Even if you do get paid late, the bills get backed up, and you get penalties," Hydrick Thomas, president of Local 2222 of the American Federation of Government Employees, said yesterday. The union represents more than 2,000 Transportation Security Administration screeners at Newark Liberty International, John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports. "They're working at a tremendous stress level right now."
Thomas scoffed at a letter provided by the Department of Homeland Security to TSA employees explaining to creditors their "non-pay status until Congress passes an appropriation."
The letter explains: "Because these employees will not receive pay during the lapse in appropriation, some of our employees may have difficulty in timely meeting their financial obligations."
And while screeners and their representatives insist they remain committed to their jobs, they say the stress of the shutdown that began Oct. 1 has been a distraction from the search for threats to airliners.
"People are not going to be focused on the job they have to do," said Thomas.
The TSA's 44,000 screeners are among the lowest-paid workers in the government, starting at about $35,000 a year.
"People make very little money, and some people work paycheck to paycheck, and the call-outs are already increasing, and pretty soon, nobody's going to be able to afford to come to work," said Stacy Bodtmann, a screener and union official at Newark Liberty.
The union officials explained that the pay cut means some screeners cannot pay for transportation or child care in order to get to work. They said resulting staffing shortages would translate to longer wait times for passengers at security checkpoints.
In a statement released yesterday, the TSA insisted that screening and the Federal Air Marshal Service would "remain operational under the government shutdown because they have been deemed law enforcement necessary or necessary for the safety of life and protection of property."
Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th Dist.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee whose district includes the airport, said yesterday that screeners and other uniformed federal employees should be paid during the shutdown, "no question about it."
"Missing a paycheck for many of these workers means they will have to make some difficult financial choices, and for many, it could mean they won't be able to make ends meet," Payne stated. "That is why I am urging my House Republican leaders to show some urgency and open government today."
Screeners are not the only airport workers struggling with partial paychecks. Ray Adams, who heads the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at Newark, said controllers would continue to guide planes safely through the region's congested airspace. But, he said, the shutdown wasn't making their jobs any easier.
"There's a lot of stress in the control tower," Adams said. "People are starting to feel it. They're a little bit agitated."
Chet Faulkner, a retired quality control manager for a peanut grower in Alabama who was about to board a flight home from Newark yesterday, said he sympathized with the screeners, but added that he was confident politicians would end the shutdown before disaster struck.
"It could affect them, sure," he said, But he added, "I just figure everything's going to be alright."